There was Tracee Talavera, a frail-looking 12-year-old, racing down the runway like a frightened fawn and doing her perfect front-handspring, one-and-a-half-tuck-front-with-a-half-twist vault. There was Marcia Frederick, 16, pin-wheeling around the uneven bars. And Leslie Pyfer, 16, posing regally and steadily on the balance beam.
In fact, all of the top U.S. female gymnasts, a squad of supple and nimble teenagers plus the 72-pound, 4'9" subteen Talavera, were looking good last week in Salt Lake City, where they gathered to do their Nadia Comaneci impressions. And some impressions they were; the judges twice handed out Comanecian scores—perfect 10s.
The occasion was the final trials for the World Gymnastics Championships, which will be held in Fort Worth in December, the first time the event has ever taken place in the U.S. After the four nights of twisting backflips and high scores were over, it was clear that finally Uncle Sam has a team capable of competing with the Soviets, Romanians and East Germans.
Six girls had qualified, primarily on the basis of points accumulated in three meets, the first the U.S. championships, held in May in Dayton, Ohio. Wednesday and Thursday nights in Salt Lake City counted as the second, Friday and Saturday nights the third.
On all four nights at Salt Lake each gymnast competed in four events: the balance beam, uneven parallel bars, floor exercise and vault. Two evenings were reserved for the compulsory routines, two for the more entertaining optionals.
Saturday night, after the last somersault had been turned and the last computer printout read, the high scorer was Pyfer, who, like Talavera, trains at the National Academy of Artistic Gymnastics in Eugene, Ore., but most of the drama had been supplied by Frederick.
At last October's World Championships in Strasbourg, France, Frederick, though hampered by a bad ankle, won a gold medal for her performance on the uneven bars. It was the first such medal ever won by a U.S. female in Olympic or world championship gymnastics competition, but in the ensuing months Frederick dropped from view. In an effort to correct what had proved to be chronically displaced tendons in both ankles, she virtually stopped competing.
"We started again this spring, before the nationals," says Frederick's coach, Muriel Grossfeld, of the American Gold School in New Milford, Conn. "It was almost like starting all over. You cannot be beautiful and elegant with your upper body when your feet don't work."
A rusty Frederick had finished only 19th at Dayton and needed to move up dramatically in Salt Lake to make the team. Until four weeks ago, she spent nine hours a day in the gym with coaches Grossfeld and Rich Carlson. Then she tapered off to seven, which is more usual for gymnasts of her caliber.
Wednesday night, at the University of Utah's Special Events Center, she came on strong with a 9.8 score on the bars, her specialty, and finished third in the all-around. The second night she got a near-perfect 9.95 on the bars and had an all-around score of 38.35. With two nights to go, she had fought her way up to 10th.